Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 04, 2012 6:21 pm 
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Scandal in a box

This personal investigation by Israeli documentary filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger starts with a discovery. As his recently deceased 98-year-old grandmother's Tel Aviv flat is being cleared out by family members, they come across a 1930's issue of a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, ("The Attack") that features an article called "A Nazi in Palestina," with a photo showing the author, Leopold von Mildenstein, was accompanied on this trip from Germany by Godlfinger's grandmother and grandfather, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler. Both von Mildenstein and the Tuchlers, it seems, were Zionists who favored stepping up Jewish emigration to Israel. The more surprising fact that emerges is that Gerda and Kurt, who lived 75 years in Israel deeply attached to their Germanness and in Gerda's case at least never properly learned to speak Hebrew, also in their very frequent travels (Kurt was a judge) revisited Germany and maintained the most cordial of relations with von Mildenstein and his wife right into the Fifties.

Like so many documentaries The Flat is being celebrated for its content when its accomplishment lags behind. It is an interesting depiction of post-WWII denial by both Germans with Nazi associations and by Jews with possible guilty secrets, but to describe Goldfinger's film trajectory as "research" goes a little far, and it proves very little beyond what the family discovered by riffling through Gerda's packrat document collection. Goldfinger is superficial and selective in what he finds and presents, and this film is being overpraised; reviews indicate that it misleads, judging from what the writers seem to have taken away from it. It's interesting to speculate what other richer information was passed over. The family is shown throwing out dozens of large garbage bags full of Gerda's treasures, and at the end the flat is stripped by odd jobbers for a few sheckels. A specialist in German books is seen dumping them into boxes with appalling pronouncements like "Goethe -- nobody reads him any more," and "Balzac -- nobody reads him any more." Even Shakespeare is dumped because in antiquated German script. "You don't know how many books they throw away in Germany now?" proclaims the expert. Goldfinger, satisfied with Der Angriff, a few letters, and the scandal he can raise by going to Germany and meeting von Mildenstein's daughter, some researchers, and some associates, isn't really that much different, perhaps, from his mother, who takes home from her mother's place only a few little ceramic figurines.

No doubt about the fact that von Mildenstein was a Nazi, a Nazi who was the Jews' friend, at least if he could help them move to Palestine, while the Jewish Affairs office was focused on that and not extermination. Goldfinger finds that von Mildenstein was a Nazi with the SS and received mention by Eichmann during his trial in Israel; von Mildenstein was Eichman's superior at an early Jewish Affairs Desk (1934-1937). But whether this is incriminating or exculpating remains unproven by the filmmaker, who prefers to dabble and suggest rather than to dig deep and establish.

No doubt that Goldfinger's mother Hannah, Gerda's daughter, knows nothing about this and wants to know nothing; and we see a lot of her frowning and pouting face as she's forced to contemplate possibilities she doesn't understand. Goldfinger's breakthrough is when he calls Edda, von Mildenstein's daughter, in Germany, and gets a friendly and welcoming response. Goldfinger is apparently over to Germany in a flash, and there's no doubt that Edda wants to know nothing either. After a visit by Goldfinger to a post-Unification records facility, he can present her with a CV in her father's own handwriting showing that he continued to work in the Third Reich after 1937 and right through the War, though in later years he did publicity for the Coca Cola Company. But as Dan Lieberman points out in a highly critical review of The Flat in Dissident Voice, Goldfinger doesn't prove anything. He succeeds in disturbing Edda, as he has disturbed Hannah, with the possibility that both their parents were up to no good. But Gerda and Kurt weren't Nazi collaborators so much as cultured Germans who liked living well and going back. And von Mildenstein may have just written travel books. (His last book, according to a Wikipedia article, was about cocktails.) What he did in Germany after 1937 is very hazy.

Another thing comes out though: Gerda's mother was shipped to Riga, Lativia, and killed by the Nazis. Did Gerda and Kurt just let this happen? Didn't anybody try to save her -- von Mildenstein, for instance, given the friendship? This is another thing that relatives didn't talk about, though a letter to Gerda from her mother in Riga turns up, reluctantly admitted as such by Hannah. But mostly as Lieberman points out, Goldfinger doesn't unearth any new information, despite his getting sidetracked into an effort to prove von Mildenstein to be a war criminal. He just films some people talking about what is provided in more detail if you do some Google searching and can read German. In 1980 Jacob Boas had published an article in History Today about von Mildenstein and Tuchler's visit to Palestine in 1933. It might have been more interesting to have a film exploring von Mildenstein's support of Zionism and its eventual rejection by the Nazis. It's a shame that a little sensationalism and a lot of closeups of your own and somebody else's family is enough to be credited with having made a brilliant and searching documentary. The Flat is a lot flatter and more insubstantial than it wants to admit. Documentaries are better off being methodical and detailed rather than confrontational and "thrilling." This isn't the good part of Michael Moore's influence (Moore was photographed with Goldfinger at Tribeca).

It was good that Goldfinger got his mother to travel to Germany, though. She speaks German, and if she goes over more often as she promises she may connect for the first time with a little more of her heritage that she seems to have labored lifelong in Israel to ignore.

The Flat, a longish 97min, in Hebrew, German and English, debuted at Jerusalem and has done well in Israel; it was featured at Tribeca. There is also a German-narrated version of it. It was released in the US October 29, 2012.

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